Friday, October 25, 2013

Origin of a stage name

One of my great-grandfather's brothers was named Karl Sperling. Karl had three children: Lily, Olga, and George. Lily was an opera singer of some note in Australia, and Olga did some singing performances as well. They both went by the stage name "Kolos", and were known as "Miss Lily Kolos" and "Miss Olga Kolos" even though they had both been married; Lily to a man with the surname of Gerofi, and Olga to a man with the surname of Sussland. All of this comes from oral history, although my father could never tell me where the "Kolos" stage name came from. I had a feeling it must have some kind of important meaning, but was stumped for what that could be.

Well, lately, I've been redoing my entirely family history research database (don't ask; suffice it to say that with almost 10,000 people in my database, it's a long-term project...but it's going to be fabulous when it's all done, with a clear paper-trail path to all my conclusions and quick access to all supporting documentation). And one of the things I did as I went along was to take an audio recording of George (Lily and Olga's brother) talking about some of the Sperling family history (in about 1994), and to incorporate all the details he talked about into my database. I also transcribed the recording so I would be able to do a text search of the whole interview whenever I needed to.

Now, George lived in Australia and I'm in Canada, but I actually met George once when I was about fifteen or sixteen, just after I'd started to become enthusiastic about genealogy. He and his second wife were visiting Canada, happened to be passing through our area, and spontaneously called up to see if they could visit. They had dinner at our house that very evening, and George and I talked about family history all night. It was amazing. I liked him tremendously, and I got the distinct impression that he was delighted to find someone so young who was so interested in knowing about the family. I learned quite a bit of very important stuff that I hadn't known before, but what I'm still kicking myself about is that nobody thought to tape our conversation. It would have been marvellous to have that; George has since died.

At any rate, I have a decent sense of George and how reliable his knowledge of family history is, and although of course he's human and fallible, I consider his information very reliable. This personal impression is supported by the fact that I'm constantly finding documentation that backs up stuff which he's told me or which he mentioned in his 1994 taped interview. Therefore, when he said in the 1994 interview that his sister Lily had been widowed in 1935, in Europe, at the age of 27 (and that her husband was 44 years old when he died) -- which, let's face it, is a pretty specific bit of information -- I believed it.

So imagine my surprise when -- as I was going through each person in my database and all the documentation I could find for them -- I discovered that Lily's husband Eugene Gerofi was alive and well during the 1950s, according to the Australia Electoral Rolls! Heck, the guy didn't die until 1971, according to the New South Wales Government Registry of Births Deaths & Marriages. As well, various immigration documents I found for Eugene demonstrated that he was definitely not 17 years Lily's senior; rather, there was a difference of only about three or four years between them.

Well, I thought, that's alright, it's just that George made a mistake in his interview. He must have meant that it was Olga who was widowed in 1935 at the age of 27, with a husband 17 years her senior. Yes.

Except that we find Olga living with her husband Felix, alive and well, also throughout the 1950s according to the Australia Electoral Rolls. Not to mention that the various documentation I found gives Lily a birth year of 1907/1908, which works perfectly with the widowed-at-age-27-in-1935 calculation; whereas Olga was born in 1910.

So...huh?

The obvious next theory is that Lily had a husband before Eugene Gerofi, even though no one had ever mentioned such a thing to me. So I called up my dad and explained my findings. He was very surprised - as far as he knew, Lily had only ever had the one husband, and although he conceded that it was possible there was a first husband he'd never heard of, he wasn't very convinced of its likelihood.

I, on the other hand, knew that there had to be some kind of explanation, because George would absolutely not have made a mistake about his sister having been widowed young, in the old country, to a man much older than her compared to her Gerofi husband.

I was fairly sure that Lily and Eugene had been married in Europe, but I thought, what the heck, just in case, why not go back to the New South Wales online registry of vital records and search for their marriage anyway.

I got a hit.

They got married in Australia in 1941, about a year after they both fled Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. (And actually, it turns out from immigration records at the National Archives of Australia that Eugene, Lily, Olga and Felix all came over on the same boat trip; I don't know if that's how Lily and Eugene met; or whether they had already known each other in Europe and were travelling together, perhaps even engaged at the time.) But the real kicker is that Lily's surname given in this marrage index record is not Sperling -- it's Kolos.

Epiphany moment.

I should have realised it earlier, of course, but better late than never. Kolos wasn't an invented stage name; it was Lily's actual name! Lily's first husband did exist - his surname was Kolos, and that's where the stage name Kolos comes from. Lily was going by Kolos when she first started her singing career in Europe, and then she got to Australia and started doing performances there. Then she got married to Eugene Gerofi, but I'm sure she wanted to maintain the personal brand she'd been building up, so she kept Kolos as a stage name. I'm guessing Olga used Kolos as well because it was known in opera circles that she and Lily were sisters, so of course for appearances they would have wanted to use the same surname.

Mystery solved. Thank you, George.

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